Jason Ben Nathan / Sun Staff Photographer

Angela Andersen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses alevism, a branch of Shi’a Islam from Turkey.

September 17, 2016

Lecturer Details Struggles of Alevi Islamic Sect to Secure Places of Worship

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In a society with increasingly divisive views toward outlets for Islamic culture, Angela Andersen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she strives to support access to holy places for the Alevi people in modern-day Turkey.

Andersen traveled to Cornell Thursday to give a seminar about Alevism, a branch of Shi’a Islam from Turkey and the largest ethnic minority group within the country.

Andersen conducted the majority of her hands-on research in Diyarbakir, Southeastern Turkey, where she said she found the practice of Alevism seriously constrained, due to its status as a minority religion. Sunni Muslims make up about 72 percent of the country’s religious population, while Alevism comprises only 20 percent, according to the Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project.

“I stayed with a family in central Turkey and their house was made of a kind of adobe block,” Andersen said. “They kept insisting that I was going to have the most wonderful sleeps because I was sleeping inside of the earth, because I was being embraced by the landscape itself.”

This kind of thinking has posed problems, prompting outsiders to insist that Alevis are shamanistic or nature, according to Andersen. In reality, she said they employ a more immersive approach to religion, attempting to literally and symbolically surround themselves with the divine.

Turkey’s current legislation restricts the use of private spaces for religious purposes, but also refuses to acknowledge that cemevis — an Alevi community center and the religious equivalent of a mosque — are places of worship, according to Andersen.

“The government actually taxes [minority places of worship] at the same rate as small businesses,” she said. “It pays for the staffing and operations of over 84,000 Turkish mosques, but not cemevis.”

Another roadblock to Alevi worship has been the group’s interest in constructing cemevis near preexisting sites of pilgrimage, Andersen said. Many Alevi communities have been forced to repurpose nearby office buildings and restaurants into cemevis, rather than being able to create structures specifically for worship.

Andersen added that even designated Alevi places of worship face opposition, describing a cemevi in Istanbul that the mayor opposed, denouncing Alevi “encroachments into the landscape of cities like Istanbul,” and going so far as to call Istanbul’s cemevi “a freak.”

“There are tensions coming from the highest levels,” Andersen said. “But in spite of all of the ongoing struggles that they have faced, the Alevis continue to attempt to make a place for themselves.”